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Be fair to the Fair

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Jody Vance: Across Canada, Fairs are hurting – but only the PNE has been left in the cold. The reason why is more frustrating than the milk ring toss.

Saturday night, our household bubble climbed into the car and cruised toward a COVID-safe path through the PNE Winter Lights event.

It was an unexpected emotional rollercoaster.

Like a million times before, we navigated past the familiar landmarks, Hastings Park, the barns, and wound our way toward the official search for Santa.

Waved through by enthusiastic employees calling out holiday greetings from behind their masks, we were sent south toward the shadow of the old wooden coaster.

My heart exploded with nostalgia. As abnormal as all this is…I felt a sense of home.

There’s something special about the commitment, effort, and mandate to create something magical at the PNE. The pride. The mission to #SaveThePNE.

I snapped back to reality with the waft of mini-doughnuts at the pull up grab-n-go. We went with hot apple cider, complete with cinnamon stick. Again — the energized young people, enthused to be standing outside to simply be bringers of joy. Mascots dressed in their Christmas best waving emphatically.

Gulp.

Thousands of lights twinkling, urged us forward into a much-needed break from the seemingly endless barrage of things we can’t do.

This is our PNE proudly making magic mid-pandemic. With no money.

This Middle is an ask to join the committed PNE crew in asking the federal government to be fair to our Fair.

In the noisy news cycle, you may have missed the fact that that every other major fair in Canada has had access to both the federal wage subsidy and grants. Ours? Zero.

The CNE has received support. The Calgary Stampede has received many millions in supports and is going back to the well.

PNE President and CEO Shelley Frost tried hard to help me understand the complexities of how our Fair has been left out in the COVID cold.

“Our Fair is unique in its ownership classification,” explains Frost.

“On paper, the Fair at the PNE is in a class all to its own, owned by the municipality, which has us with no access to funding of any kind.”

Figuring this out is about as easy as winning the Milk Bottle Ring Toss. (Just ask Keith Baldrey)

In 2004 the PNE became the property of the City of Vancouver. As a result, no ministry feels ownership; it’s part Agriculture, part Tourism, part Arts and Culture, part Heritage. A unicorn of fairs, which unexpectedly a handicap when the pandemic hit.

The one positive? The city was quick to extend their credit line to keep the lights, on even at bare bones. But that’s it.

Currently, the PNE is at the mercy of the federal government who says it cannot provide any exception without opening floodgates for all municipally-owned events and organizations. Really?

That seems extreme. Given the dollars dolled out for almost identical, provincial pride-filled events…could there not be an exception based on more than a century of community building?

When I asked about where the roadblock might be, the answer was “good question.”

Some speculate there’s a more nefarious plan at play – that the PNE’s land is in the sights of developers. It IS prime real estate, but Frost is quick and firm:

“I want to be super clear about this. Hastings Park is held in trust by the City with specific conditions around the land being used only for the enjoyment and recreation of the public. It’s a gem of public space and the issue of the PNE’s role on site has been long settled. A small but vocal few may still want to chart a different course for this space but we’ve heard loud and clear from people across this province that the PNE is an important institution, and that the role we play on site is crucial to jobs, the economy and community and social impact. The outpouring of public support we’ve received during COVID only reinforces this.”

A whopping 95% of respondents to one survey said the PNE is an important institution, and they see the value in it. 97% say the PNE plays a vital role in youth employment.

When I asked about where the roadblock might be, the answer was “good question.”

“I’ve spoken with many MPs and Ministers, most recently Minister of Economic Development Melanie Joly’s team. They were shocked to hear that the issue has not been resolved for us.”

We are all a bit stunned. Are the Rockies in the way?

Punishing the PNE for being proudly independent, and not requiring provincial or federal funding prior to the pandemic seems misguided at best, and has left them out in the cold when it comes to finding ways into the inner funding circle. So here we are, watching one of our most iconic community building initiatives suffer, starve and slip ever farther into debt.

The hard costs of simply maintaining the venues and grounds – things like utilities, communication costs, insurance, security, and a few key people – sits at close to $11 million per year.

“Right now we are managing cash flow, we are doing okay. At some point, however, you are so far into debt, you can’t get out.”

If every other major fair with almost identical footprints and events receive wage subsidies and grants in the tens of millions…can’t Ottawa throw the PNE a life preserver?

The Ministry of Finance could simply adjust criteria or make one exception to let just the PNE into the designation required for support. Even if it was just to help with payroll.

Shelley Frost’s team has run the numbers. Had they accessed the wage subsidy when first offered, they’d have saved $3.6 million to date. They are currently running a $10 million deficit for the year.

The call to action is an ask for something, anything. “Right now we are managing cash flow, we are doing okay. At some point, however, you are so far into debt, you can’t get out.”

We talked at length about how so many of us grew up walking the fairgrounds or had our first taste of employment there, certainly many BC youth experienced our first taste of social freedom, out from under parents’ eyes within those safety gates.

What a great Holiday Middle Miracle it would be to shake just a sliver of support from the government’s holiday tree – in the name of being fair for our Fair.

Jody Vance is a born and raised Vancouverite who’s spent 30 years in both local and national media. The first woman in the history of Canadian TV to host her own sports show in primetime, since 2011 she’s been working in both TV and radio covering news and current affairs.

SWIM ON:

SWIM ON